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X < Y

X is less bad than Y.

“You need to do more of X, or Y will happen.”

The ‘lesser evil’ type of message is everywhere. Buy insurance or… one day your house will burn, or you’ll crash your car, or your pet will become ill and you’ll be on your own to deal with it. Take greater care of your health or… one day you’ll have diabetes, or have circulatory disease, or have a stroke. Feed your kids better, or you might outlive them. Take away their smartphones and make them play sports, or they will have no social skills when they grow up. Make them go to school, or you’ll be fined or go to prison. Pay into a savings account and start a pension as soon as you can, or you’ll be broke when you retire…

We’ve all heard these messages and regardless of their truth, they never make us feel good.

The problem is in the construction of the message. It comes with hidden subtext, suggesting that the action we are encouraging, X, is unpleasant, just not quite as awful as Y.

Let’s take walking as an example. We are told to walk more, aiming for 10,000 steps a day, to help us be less likely to get a string of long-term conditions. But actually, walking is quite a nice thing to do on its own. Why would we beat people up with a negative message about doing something they might enjoy anyway?

This is not to say that negative motivators don’t work – they certainly do! People are hugely motivated to avoid a loss. But if you are only doing something to avoid a greater evil, then you will never intrinsically enjoy it for its own sake.

There’s another problem with this… it’s probably not just one single X. That implies X is a one-off thing. You don’t just make one payment into your savings, you don’t just attend one class, you don’t just get one early night, you don’t just sacrifice one evening of alcohol, or one cigarette, or one takeaway. You don’t recycle one glass bottle, spend one evening revising, work one overtime shift…

It could be 100X or 1000X, or more. You might need to do X repeatedly over a really long period of time to avoid Y.

Maybe they just can’t be compared.

People simply do not enjoy doing something out of fear of something worse. But they do enjoy working towards the things they actually want. It feels nicer to work towards something we want rather than away from something we don’t want, and often the difference is a simple reframing.

So, in what amazing ways will your service or product change your customers’ lives?

Will it make their confidence skyrocket? Will it help them sleep? Maybe concentrate better? Feel better about themselves? Give them an uplift of energy? Make their day easier? Make their children happier? Make their friends admire them more? Help them master a cool new skill? Enable them to unlock the next step in their dream career?

Forget the negativity, you'd be better off making X more desirable.

Tell us the good stuff!

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